Thursday, April 9, 2009

Gonna Get Fooled Again?

The New York State DOT has recently added lanes to the highway west of the bridge - for buses, they said. But now they've opened the lanes to "HOVs." They claim that the highway wasn't functioning efficiently, and they needed to do it to reduce congestion. Of course, it reduces the speed of the buses and will drive customers away from the buses and into cars.

That's the situation today on the Staten Island Expressway, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Michelle Ernst has written a scathing blog post about it. She calls it "same old same old," and points us back to a 2005 newsletter where she expressed concern that it could turn into a "bait-and-switch."

Here's a significant quote from that newsletter:

Further, a process by which a mass transit project is created but then turned into highway lanes begs questions of legality and future trust in the DOT’s intentions, or at least in the consequences of any action the agency takes to build special-use lanes. The DOT recently took over the Tappan Zee corridor project, which envisions construction of “high occupancy toll” lanes in Rockland County, another highway innovation untested in the region or NY State. Everyone involved in that project, and in other projects involving special use lanes, will have to ask how quickly highway agencies will roll over to political pressure to change the nature of those lanes if the DOT caves in on the Staten Island lanes.

Indeed. How's that going, then? Well, according to Tri-State's latest posts, the initial financing report says that the current price tag of $16 billion will probably be more like $23 billion after inflation and debt service. So far they've only figured out how to pay for $4 billion. The rest may be financed by "public-private partnerships," and we know to approach those with caution (PDF).

Significantly, the Financial Studies Report (PDF) does something that none of the previous Tappan Zee reports have done: separate out the costs of the various components. Up until now we've had to deal with the whole thing as a package, and accepting "BRT" has meant accepting the DOT's assumption that any replacements must widen the bridge to eight lanes and include two new "HO/T" lanes (which do not count as BRT). Now the tables on Page 3 of the study break down the various costs in a straightforward way. (I hope the staffer responsible doesn't get fired for such egregious transparency!)

The tables tell us that if we just want to rehab the bridge and use two of the seven lanes for BRT, plus build a full, separated BRT line from Suffern to Port Chester, it would only cost us $2.89 + $2.55 = $5.44 billion. Assuming that the inflation and debt service multiplier is linear, we're talking about $7.82 billion, which is roughly a third of what it would cost to build a commuter rail line from Suffern to Tarrytown, widen the bridge and add "climbing lanes" in West Nyack.

"But Cap'n!" you protest, "the studies show that millions of people will move to Rockland in the next ten minutes, and that they will all insist on driving their single-occupant Hummers back and forth across the bridge nonstop for the rest of their lives!"

Well, son, calm down. Remember that those studies were done before the recent economic collapse. Rockland is completely unsustainable in its present form. In this climate, people would have to be nuts to move to some car-dependent subdivision in Rockland. There will probably be huge growth around transit centers (Suffern, Nanuet and Spring Valley), and the rest of the county is going to be depopulated faster than you can say "Averill Harriman."

The people of New York have two options. We can prop up the Rockland sprawl for a few more years by mortgaging a new $23 billion ten-lane bridge to Lehman Brothers, or we can fix up the bridge we have and make do. Going along with this bridge just so that we can claim some "BRT!" victory that will be bait-and-switched out of existence a few years later is about as short-sighted as you can get.

I don't know why Tri-State staffer Steven Higashide is so bullish on the Tappan Zee reconstruction. Ernst seems to have a much healthier skepticism of the DOT's ways; I wish she could pass them on to Higashide.

Image: "Outline Cross Section at Main Span for Linear Park," page 7-20 of Alternatives Analysis Level 2 (PDF), by the Tappan Zee taskforce.


blog said...

Hey, this is Steven Higashide from Tri-State. I just want to make it clear that Mobilizing the Region always reflects the official position of TSTC (with some few exceptions that are generally tagged as first-person accounts). So the difference between the 2005 article and our more recent work does not reflect personal differences of opinion; it has more to do with how the TZ project has changed over time.

One way the project has changed is that in the 1990s and early 2000s the state was clearly attempting to widen highways in the downstate region and Metro-North was playing a major role in the TZ study, potentially biasing it towards commuter rail.

Today it's clear that NYSDOT has made a good-faith effort to select the transit option that is most appropriate for the corridor and that the appropriate cross-corridor mode is bus rapid transit. The study team's BRT alternatives are far more rigorously planned than they were in 2005. It is not a perfect project but it is one we support. We continue to offer input on the project through the study team’s public process.

As for the SIE situation -- as our work on Long Island demonstrates, NYSDOT's regional offices have a lot of autonomy. This change is one that Commissioner Glynn needs to take notice of.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Steven. but the BRT is not the main point of my post.

My main point is that the expansion of the bridge and the Thruway from seven to ten lanes is a really bad idea and will induce lots more sprawl in Rockland, Orange and Westchester. As long as the project includes more than eight lanes (even if two are "HO/T"), it does not deserve the support of Tri-State or any other organization that cares about the environment.

Don't let your enthusiasm for BRT blind you to the fact that this has been a really crappy project from day one.